During an after school practice Wednesday afternoon at the Point Grey secondary track, Julie Kawai Herdman honed the steps that follow the inevitable command of her sport: Runners, take your marks.
Kawai, a Grade 8 student at Magee secondary, rehearsed the rhythm of getting set, coiling tightly and holding still until she heard the gun, which in this case was the voice of coach Dave Douglas.
“You have to remain still,” he told her twice. “Another thing, try not to stand up before you start running.”
She tried again but moved through the step too soon. “I haven’t said on your marks yet,” said the coach.
Afterwards, Kawai said, “It’s getting better."
It’s much better than that. As an untrained novice, Kawai’s sprint and long jump results are in the top one per cent of all female B.C. high school athletes — of any age.
“I’ve been around track and field a long time. She’s the real deal,” said Douglas, a veteran coach who competed for UBC and trained under Gerald Mach, Canada’s national team sprint coach at the time, and B.C. Sports Hall of Famers Lloyd Swindells and John Freeman.
Kawai may have a lot to learn, but her limited training isn’t holding her back, said Douglas. “Her long jump is even more extraordinary when you consider she’d only been doing it for two weeks [before the city meet].”
Halfway through the athletics season this spring, the untested bantam athlete joined the Magee team because she enjoyed running and jumping. She is also an avid soccer player. At the city championships May 8 and 9, she won the three bantam events she entered: the 100 metre and 200 metre races and the long jump.
She was the best in her age group, the best in the age group above that and better than the juniors. She clocked 26.85 seconds in the 200m and 4.75 metres in the long jump, remarkable results that put her in the top two results of all public school athletes and qualified her to compete with the best seniors in the province at the B.C. championships this weekend in Langley. (He coach said she can now jump over five metres in practice.)
“I didn’t really believe it at first because I was watching the senior runners. They looked really good so I thought [the coaches] were just joking,” said Kawai in the halting, high voice of a girl who may have outperformed competitors five older but doesn’t yet share their maturity.
Kawai and her parents made a measured decision about her motivation for competing this season and she won’t race against the Grade 11 and 12 athletes as a 13-year-old rookie.
“It’s my first year and I didn’t want to take it really seriously and I wanted to make it a fun year,” she said. “In Grade 9, if it happens like this again, I’ll run with the seniors.”
Just like practising her starts, Kawai, leaning toward modesty, is still learning the subtle difference between bragging about her successes and celebrating her accomplishments.
“I like competition. It’s fun and it feels good to win, but I don’t really like to say it out loud,” said Kawai, who was born in Japan and was five when her family moved to Vancouver.
As her coach, Douglas is mindful Kawai continues to enjoy the sport.
“I try to motivate her and keep her happy. I don’t do any more than that,” he said. “I’ve seen so many kids get burned out at a young age and that’s my big concern. I want to see her still running in grades 11 and 12."
Douglas, whose daughter Danielle captained the track team at UBC, pointed out that Kawai is also younger than most of her Grade 8 peers.
“She was born Dec. 29. If it were for two days, she’d been in Grade 7.”
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